Councilor blocks expansion of Norfolk Southern’s Englewood rail yard with land vote delayed: ‘It was just a lack of respect for me and the community’

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An ordinance by the Chicago City Council to transfer part of Englewood’s roads to the Norfolk Southern Railway was blocked Wednesday by the presiding councilor – the latter pivot in the freight company’s multi-year plan to double the size of one of its yards, despite opposition from local residents.

ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, and allies used a parliamentary tactic to delay legislation that would allow the railroad to acquire the streets and alleys it does not already own between two existing sets of tracks from Garfield Boulevard south to 59th Street. She had dropped her opposition to a vote until Wednesday.

This would have given the railroad room to expand its largest U.S. intermodal yard, which has its main entrance at 47th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway. The lack of a signature comes after Norfolk Southern acquired about 500 lots in the area pending the city council’s land deal.

Taylor vows to get Norfolk to agree to community demands for jobs before the next council meeting: “It’s just a lack of respect for me and the community. … Let’s not forget that this was the displacement of 400 families in a black community. And since 2014 they have done nothing. It’s dirty.”

Taylor has said she previously dropped her opposition to the project because she believed the railroad would meet some of her demands regarding hiring and how money was spent in the community. The railroad failed to deliver on its commitments, she said.

A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern issued a statement later Wednesday saying that the council’s actions “further delay the progress of this project, limiting the impact of the many delays to our now 15-year effort to expand our 47th Street facility expand, enlarge. This project would advance Chicago’s role as the heart of our nation’s supply chain.

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“The impact is twofold,” the statement continued. “New construction is at a standstill, which means there is more delay in bidding for work from local contractors. It also means a slowdown in the high-paying jobs created by Norfolk Southern’s expansion, as well as those with contractors and other Chicago businesses supporting the yard’s ongoing operations. We are committed to Chicago and the local communities we serve in the region. We look forward to continuing this project with our partners in Chicago, all to expand economic opportunities in the community and keep trucking moving for American consumers and businesses.”

The spokesperson noted that work on the site has been delayed by the lengthy city ordinance approval process.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who introduced the ordinance, has maintained that after decades of industry job losses, the city can help remaining businesses by providing land they need to expand at a lower cost.

At a press conference following the City Council meeting, Lightfoot defended the railroad’s community engagement efforts to date.

“You have to get out into the community, and Norfolk Southern really needs to take leadership responsibility for that – and they have – to make sure they listen to what residents’ concerns are and come up with solutions that address those concerns, said Lightfoot.

Norfolk Southern’s location in the heart of Chicago means it can’t help but debate about who benefits and doesn’t benefit from the city’s prominence as a freight hub, what happens if the railroad displaces longtime residents, and whether it’s enough cares about green space and clean air for those who still live near the railway.

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Taylor previously blocked a vote on the ordinance for five months to put pressure on railroads to conduct a study on the long-term health effects of diesel soot from trains and trucks and to hire more black contractors and workers, including from Englewood.

Taylor has cited a lawsuit from a longtime Englewood resident whose home was acquired by Norfolk Southern through eminent domain as evidence that the company’s expansion harms the surrounding community. The railroad company made no apologies for taking over the property, according to the court filing in response to its lawsuit, and is now finalizing a settlement with the plaintiff.

“We’re talking about a billion-dollar company that got rich on the backs of slaves, and now they’re mistreating black and brown communities,” she said.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker has said the company supports educational efforts about railroad history and the black community, and that the railroad has tried to be a good neighbor. As required by the City of Chicago for all contractors, the Ordinance for Transferring Streets and Alleys to Norfolk Southern specifically listed hundreds of slaves owned by the railroad’s predecessors before the Civil War.

“Diversity, equality and inclusion are part of our culture today and we strive for continuous progress,” he said. “We are proud to be a majority minority employer in Chicago, where more than 30% of our local workforce is black.”

Spielmaker continued, “Expanding this facility in the city eliminates the need for residents to commute out of town for work, creates new jobs and curbs urban sprawl while reinvesting directly in the communities we have long been a part of .”

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He later told the Tribune that Norfolk Southern “has publicly confirmed, through multiple public meetings in addition to the comments published in your newspaper, our commitment to hire various contractors to build this project, in addition to the additional jobs which it will yield upon completion.”

But Taylor said on Wednesday she “wouldn’t sign on the RDA for which I wasn’t here,” referring to a development deal the city made with the railroad for the expansion in 2014.

She also said she wants an accounting of a $3 million environmental and community development fund created by this agreement for projects near the expanded rail yard.

For example, she says she and local residents were unaware at the time that this fund paid $934,000 for improvements to container-loading equipment within the yard, and $200,000 for repairs and upgrades to a rail overpass along the proposed Englewood Nature Trail. She wants to know how this could have happened.

“Basically, they went around me and went straight to the mayor and asked to introduce this,” Taylor said. “So it shows you the kind of respect this multi-billion dollar company has for my community.”

According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Chicago is the nation’s largest freight hub, handling half of all intermodal trains in the U.S. and a total of $3 trillion in freight each year.

John Lippert is a freelance reporter.

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